April 16, 2012
By David Gutierrez
A Venn diagram released by Harvard law professor and political activist Larry Lessig reveals the shocking connections between our government and banking and investment giant Goldman Sachs.
Goldman Sachs was a major contributor to (and beneficiary of) the 2007 subprime mortgage crisis that helped initiate the current depression. The bank then proceeded to heavily avail itself of bailout payments and other monetary assistance from the federal government.
In 2010, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) filed a lawsuit against the company, alleging that it had deceived investors about the nature of one of its products, costing them a total of $1 billion.
Goldman Sachs was defended in the lawsuit by its longtime legal firm, Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, LLP. One of its advisors on defense strategy was a partner in the firm by the name of Gregory Craig, who had left his job as White House Counsel only months before. When observers raised ethical concerns, some of them pointing out that the Obama Administration prohibits its former members from lobbying it for at least two years, Craig responded by saying, “I am a lawyer, not a lobbyist.”
Craig is a classic example of the “revolving door” in this country between industry and government. He has moved back and forth over the years between government positions — he served as foreign policy advisor to both Senator Edward Kennedy and to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright — and legal work, often taking on major corporate clients like Goldman Sachs.
November 11, 2011
By Robert Scheer
There is no three-strikes law for crooked bankers, not even a law for a fifth strike, as The New York Times reported in the case of Citigroup, cited last month in a $1 billion fraud case. Unlike the California third-striker I once wrote about whom a district attorney wanted banished forever to state prison for stealing a piece of pizza from the plate of a person dining outdoors, Citigroup executives get off with a fine and by offering a promise not to do it again, and again and again.
As the Times reported when Citigroup agreed to settle SEC charges last month: “Citigroup’s main brokerage subsidiary, its predecessors or its parent company agreed to not violate the very same antifraud statue in July 2010. And in May 2006. Also as far back as March 2005 and April 2000.”
Not that the bankers face prison time, since the Justice Department has refused to act in these cases, and the Securities and Exchange Commission is bringing only civil charges, which the banks find quite tolerable. This time, the fine against Citigroup was $285 million, which may sound like a lot except that the bank raked off as much as $700 million on this particular toxic securities deal. As the Bloomberg news service editorialized, “… there should be only one answer from Jed S. Rakoff, the federal judge in New York assigned to weigh the merits of the agreement: You’ve got to be kidding.”
October 31, 2011
By Jesse Eisinger
Back when the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission was doing its work, I would check in periodically with someone who worked there to find out how it was going.
“Good news!” my source would joke. “We got the guy who caused it.”
That is the way I felt last week when the Securities and Exchange Commission announced that it had, well, agreed to a measly $285 million settlement with Citigroup over the bank having misled its own customers in selling an investment it created out of mortgage securities as the housing market was beginning its collapse.
In addition, the S.E.C. accused one person — a low-level banker. Hooray, we finally got the guy who caused the financial crisis! The Occupy Wall Street protestors can now go home.
After years of lengthy investigations into collateralized debt obligations, the mortgage securities at the heart of the financial crisis, the S.E.C. has brought civil actions against only two small-time bankers. But compared with the Justice Department, the S.E.C. is the second coming of Eliot Ness. No major investment banker has been brought up on criminal charges stemming from the financial crisis.
To understand why that is so pathetic and — worse — corrupting, we need to briefly review what went on in C.D.O.’s in the years before the crisis. By 2006, legions of Wall Street bankers had turned C.D.O.’s into vehicles for their own personal enrichment, at the expense of their customers.
These bankers brought in savvy (and cynical) investors to buy pieces of the deals that they could not sell. These investors bet against the deals. Worse, they skewed the deals by exercising influence over what securities went into the C.D.O.’s, and they pushed for the worst possible stuff to be included.
The investment banks did not disclose any of this to the investors on the other side of the deals, or if they did, they slipped a vague, legalistic disclosure sentence into the middle of hundreds of pages of dense documentation. In the case brought last week, Citigroup was selling the deal, called Class V Funding III, while its own traders were filling it up with garbage and betting against it.
By the S.E.C.’s own investigations of and settlements with Goldman Sachs, JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup, and by reporting like my ProPublica work with Jake Bernstein and early stories by The Wall Street Journal, we know that these breaches were anything but isolated. This was the Wall Street business model. (Goldman, JPMorgan and Citigroup were all able to settle without admitting or denying anything, which, of course, is part of the problem.)
Neither the Citigroup settlement nor any of the others come close to matching the profits and bonuses that these banks generated in making these deals. And low-level bankers did not, and could not, act alone. They were not rogues, hiding things from their bosses.
Last week’s S.E.C. complaint makes clear that the low-level Citigroup banker that it sued, Brian H. Stoker, had multiple conversations with his superiors about the details of Class V. At one point, Mr. Stoker’s boss pressed him to make sure that their group got “credit” for the profits on the short that was made by another group at the bank.
Pause, and think about that. The boss was looking for credit, but as far as the S.E.C. was concerned, he got no blame.
The S.E.C. did not respond to a request for comment, so we are left to wonder what explains its failure to reckon adequately with the pervasive problems. Contrary to expectations, the embattled and oft-assailed agency has done almost everything right with structured finance investigations, taking aim at abuses related to C.D.O.’s and other complex deals.
The S.E.C. has also devoted adequate resources to the issue. It put together a special task force on structured finance, sending the proper signal of the agency’s priorities both internally and externally. The task force is staffed by bright people, an invigorating mix of young go-getters and experienced hands. Those people have understood for years what was wrong with the C.D.O. business on Wall Street.
O.K., so what is it? Risk aversion.
Based on the major cases the S.E.C. has brought, a pattern has emerged. It is making one settlement per firm and concentrating on only the safest, most airtight cases. The agency’s yardstick seems to be, who wrote the stupidest e-mail? Mr. Stoker of Citigroup wrote an incriminating e-mail that recommended keeping one crucial participant in the dark. Goldman’s Fabrice Tourre, the other functionary the agency has sued, wrote dumb things to his girlfriend.
But the S.E.C is not the G-mail G-man. It is the securities police. Imprudent e-mailing is not the only way to commit securities fraud.
Maybe the agency hopes that private litigation will take up the slack. It cannot investigate and wring a prosecution or settlement out of every corrupt deal. Instead, it has long aimed to plant a flag and let private litigants take care of the rest.
But private litigation has failed. One problem is that the defrauded institutions often committed their own sins. In a monstrous daisy chain, C.D.O.’s bought pieces of other C.D.O.’s. These investments were run by management companies. They might have been the victim in one C.D.O., but complicit in the predations of another.
April 1st, 2011
By: Lisa Johnson Mandell
It looks like employees of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) might not be able to get away with murder, but they can get away with downloading and watching massive amounts of pornography while on the job. When word got out that they were doing this, none of the offenders were fired or even reported to or disciplined by their professional associations.
According to Denver-based attorney Kevin Evans, who sued to have as much information on the incidents as possible released, the majority of the employees involved were attorneys, and none of them was fired or reported to the American Bar Association.
Evans is rankled by the situation because these government employees were watching porn on company time, basically being paid by taxpayers to do it. He says that a private practice attorney who deceitfully billed clients like that would not only be kicked out of the American Bar Association and lose his or her license to practice law, but also could also be indicted and prosecuted for fraud.
The government has not exactly been forthcoming about the details of the situation. Just reading about heinous misuse of taxpayer funds upset Evans enough to send him on a search for details. He had to sue to get most of them, which, after a lot of time and effort, included the 24 offenders’ grade, rank, offense and what disciplinary measures were taken, but no names.
“Not one was fired,” Evans told AOL Jobs. “But some were allowed to resign. They received basically nothing more than a slap on the wrist.” One had downloaded so much porn at work his hard drive was full, and he had to burn the porn onto disks, which he stashed around his office.
Evans has been unable to get the SEC to name names, however. The presiding judge stated that “the public has no right to the names of government employees engaged in unlawful activity.”
While Evans believes he’s taken the issue about as far as he can go, he feels his time and effort were worthwhile. “By sheer media attention and public interest, we feel we’ve been successful,” he said. We may not know exactly who bilked American taxpayers for time spent watching porn, but we do know that the SEC is responsible for letting them get away with it.
We also know that it’s not just happening at the SEC. Evans says that since the situation has come to light, he’s received e-mails from employees of many other government agencies claiming that colleagues are watching porn in their offices as well. Your tax dollars at work.
March 1st, 2011
Wall Street swindler Bernard Madoff said in a magazine interview published Sunday that new regulatory reform enacted after the recent national financial crisis is laughable and that the federal government is a Ponzi scheme.
“The whole new regulatory reform is a joke,” Madoff said during a telephone interview with New York magazine in which he discussed his disdain for the financial industry and for its regulators.
The interview was published on the magazine’s website Sunday night.
Madoff did an earlier New York Times interview in which he accused banks and hedge funds of being “complicit” in his Ponzi scheme to fleece people out of billions of dollars. He said they failed to scrutinize the discrepancies between his regulatory filings and other information.
He said in the New York magazine interview the Securities and Exchange Commission “looks terrible in this thing,” and he said the “whole government is a Ponzi scheme.”
A Ponzi, or pyramid, scheme is a scam in which people are persuaded to invest through promises of unusually high returns, with early investors paid their returns out of money put in by later investors.
A court-appointed trustee seeking to recover money on behalf of the victims of Madoff’s massive Ponzi scheme has filed a lawsuit against his primary banker, JPMorgan Chase, alleging the bank had suspected something wrong in his operation for years. The bank has denied any wrongdoing.
Madoff is serving a 150-year prison sentence in Butner, N.C., after pleading guilty in 2009 to fraud charges.
In the New York magazine interview, Madoff, 72, also said he was devastated by his son Mark Madoff’s death and laments the pain he wrought on his family, especially his wife.
“She’s angry at me,” Madoff said. “I mean, you know, I destroyed our family.”
Mark Madoff, 46, hanged himself with a dog leash in his Manhattan apartment on the second anniversary of his father’s arrest. He left behind a wife and four children, ages 2 to 18.
At the time of his suicide, federal investigators had been trying to determine if he, his brother and an uncle participated in or knew about the fraud. The relatives, who held management positions at the family investment firm, denied any wrongdoing.
Bernard Madoff has maintained that his family didn’t know about his Ponzi scheme.
July 29, 2010
By: Dunstan Prial
So much for transparency.
Under a little-noticed provision of the recently passed financial-reform legislation, the Securities and Exchange Commission no longer has to comply with virtually all requests for information releases from the public, including those filed under the Freedom of Information Act.
The law, signed last week by President Obama, exempts the SEC from disclosing records or information derived from “surveillance, risk assessments, or other regulatory and oversight activities.” Given that the SEC is a regulatory body, the provision covers almost every action by the agency, lawyers say. Congress and federal agencies can request information, but the public cannot.
That argument comes despite the President saying that one of the cornerstones of the sweeping new legislation was more transparent financial markets. Indeed, in touting the new law, Obama specifically said it would “increase transparency in financial dealings.”
The SEC cited the new law Tuesday in a FOIA action brought by FOX Business Network. Steven Mintz, founding partner of law firm Mintz & Gold LLC in New York, lamented what he described as “the backroom deal that was cut between Congress and the SEC to keep the SEC’s failures secret. The only losers here are the American public.”
If the SEC’s interpretation stands, Mintz, who represents FOX Business Network, predicted “the next time there is a Bernie Madoff failure the American public will not be able to obtain the SEC documents that describe the failure,” referring to the shamed broker whose Ponzi scheme cost investors billions.
“The new provision applies to information obtained through examinations or derived from that information,” said SEC spokesman John Nester. “We are expanding our examination program’s surveillance and risk assessment efforts in order to provide more sophisticated and effective Wall Street oversight. The success of these efforts depends on our ability to obtain documents and other information from brokers, investment advisers and other registrants. The new legislation makes certain that we can obtain documents from registrants for risk assessment and surveillance under similar conditions that already exist by law for our examinations. Because registrants insist on confidential treatment of their documents, this new provision also removes an opportunity for brokers, investment advisers and other registrants to refuse to cooperate with our examination document requests.”
Criticism of the provision has been swift. “It allows the SEC to block the public’s access to virtually all SEC records,” said Gary Aguirre, a former SEC staff attorney-turned-whistleblower who had accused the agency of thwarting an investigation into hedge fund Pequot Asset Management in 2005. “It permits the SEC to promulgate its own rules and regulations regarding the disclosure of records without getting the approval of the Office of Management and Budget, which typically applies to all federal agencies.”
Aguirre used FOIA requests in his own lawsuit against the SEC, which the SEC settled this year by paying him $755,000. Aguirre, who was fired in September 2005, argued that supervisors at the SEC stymied an investigation of Pequot – a charge that prompted an investigation by the Senate Judiciary and Finance committees.
The SEC closed the case in 2006, but would re-open it three years later. This year, Pequot and its founder, Arthur Samberg, were forced to pay $28 million to settle insider-trading charges related to shares of Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT). The settlement with Aguirre came shortly later.
“From November 2008 through January 2009, I relied heavily on records obtained from the SEC through FOIA in communications to the FBI, Senate investigators, and the SEC in arguing the SEC had botched its initial investigation of Pequot’s trading in Microsoft securities and thus the SEC should reopen it, which it did,” Aguirre said. “The new legislation closes access to such records, even when the investigation is closed.
“It is hard to imagine how the bill could be more counterproductive,” Aguirre added.
FOX Business Network sued the SEC in March 2009 over its failure to produce documents related to its failed investigations into alleged investment frauds being perpetrated by Madoff and R. Allen Stanford. Following the Madoff and Stanford arrests it, was revealed that the SEC conducted investigations into both men prior to their arrests but failed to uncover their alleged frauds.
FOX Business made its initial request to the SEC in February 2009 seeking any information related to the agency’s response to complaints, tips and inquiries or any potential violations of the securities law or wrongdoing by Stanford.
FOX Business has also filed lawsuits against the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve over their failure to respond to FOIA requests regarding use of the bailout funds and the Fed’s extended loan facilities. In February, the Federal Court in New York sided with FOX Business and ordered the Treasury to comply with its requests.
Last year, the network won a legal victory to force the release of documents related to New York University’s lawsuit against Madoff feeder Ezra Merkin.
FOX Business’ FOIA requests have so far led the SEC to release several important and damaging documents:
•FOX Business used the FOIA to obtain a 2005 survey that the SEC in Fort Worth was sending to Stanford investors. The survey showed that the SEC had suspicions about Stanford several years prior to the collapse of his $7 billion empire.
•FOX Business used the FOIA to obtain copies of emails between Federal Reserve lawyers, AIG and staff at the Federal Reserve Bank of New York in which it was revealed the Fed staffers knew that bailing out AIG would result in bonuses being paid.
Recently, TARP Congressional Oversight Panel chair Elizabeth Warren told FOX Business that the network’s Freedom of Information Act efforts played a “very important part” of the panel’s investigation into AIG.
Warren told the network the government “crossed a line” with the AIG bailout.
“FOX News and the congressional oversight panel has pushed, pushed, pushed, for transparency, give us the documents, let us look at everything. Your Freedom of Information Act suit, which ultimately produced 250,000 pages of documentation, was a very important part of our report. We were able to rely on the documents that you pried out for a significant part of our being able to put this report together,” Warren said.
The SEC first made its intention to block further FOIA requests known on Tuesday. FOX Business was preparing for another round of “skirmishes” with the SEC, according to Mintz, when the agency called and said it intended to use Section 929I of the 2000-page legislation to refuse FBN’s ongoing requests for information.
Mintz said the network will challenge the SEC’s interpretation of the law.
“I believe this is subject to challenge,” he said. “The contours will have to be figured out by a court.”
July 16, 2010
The Wall Street Journal
By: Luca Di Leo
After fending off most challenges to its independence and winning new powers to oversee big financial firms, the Federal Reserve has emerged from a bruising debate on the overhaul of U.S. financial rules as perhaps the pre-eminent regulator in the sector. But that could only bring it added blame if things go wrong again.
Just a few months ago, amid populist anger at the Fed for failing to prevent the financial crisis of 2008 and bailing out Wall Street, Congress was talking of stripping the central bank of its supervisory oversight of banks or forcing it to submit to congressional audit of its interest-rate decisions.
Instead, the new law gives the Fed more power and a better tool box to help prevent financial crises. It will become the primary regulator for large, complex financial firms of all kinds, such as American International Group, the insurer which built a massive derivatives portfolio that regulators didn’t see until it was too late.
This isn’t the first time Congress has expanded the Fed’s role. After the Great Depression, it passed the Employment Act in 1946, charging the Fed with averting the huge unemployment seen in the 1930s. After the double-digit inflation of the 1970s, the Fed was formally given a dual mandate of promoting both price stability and maximum sustainable employment. In the wake of the latest financial crisis, the Fed is effectively being told to add the maintenance of financial stability to its responsibilities.
The risks, however, are that the Fed still won’t be able to prevent another crisis, and that it will be an even clearer target for blame if that occurs. “The bill has good intentions, but I’m worried about its implementation. If I were the Fed, I’d be seriously worried about being left holding the bag,” said Anil Kashyap, a professor at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business.
The Fed, of course, still shares responsibility for overseeing the financial system with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Securities and Exchange Commission and other agencies with which it sits on the new Financial Stability Council. And in a change, the new law requires the Fed to get the Treasury’s go-ahead before using its extraordinary authority to lend to almost anyone, and limits loans to sectors of the economy rather than individual firms, such as Bear Stearns or AIG.
But the Fed’s role is in most respects expanded by the legislation. The central bank will decide whether the council should vote on breaking up big companies if they threaten the stability of the entire financial system. It also will be able to force big financial companies—not just firms legally organized as banks—to boost their capital and liquidity. It will have the power to scrutinize the largest hedge funds.
All this could suck the Fed into political controversies. A decision to break up a big bank because of its size likely would subject the Fed to conflicting pressures from lobbyists and politicians. “It could give a lot of people reason to interfere,” says Thomas Cooley, professor at the New York University Stern School of Business.
The Fed’s role in the rescue of AIG and Bear Stearns, and its acquiescence in letting Lehman Brothers fail, led the public to question the Fed’s powers and prompted Congress to consider curtailing its powers. One threat came from legislation sponsored by long-time Fed critic Ron Paul (R., Texas), author of the best-selling book “End the Fed,” who sought to expand the authority of the congressional Government Accountability Office to audit the Fed. The new law expands the GAO’s auditing authority but avoids nearly all provisions that alarmed the Fed.
In the end, the Fed’s emergency lending during the 2008 crisis will face a one-time audit to be published by Dec. 2010 and it will be required—with a two-year lag—to reveal which banks borrow from its discount window. With lobbying from several presidents of the 12 regional Federal Reserve Banks, the Fed also fought off proposals to remove it from supervision of the large number of smaller banks.
“Basically, they ended up winning almost on everything that counts,” says Laurence Meyer, a former Fed board governor now with economic consulting firm Macroeconomic Advisers LLC.
The Fed will surrender its responsibilities for consumer-finance regulation —never central to its mission or to its chairmen—which will be shifted to a new independent agency. It will be housed and financed by the Fed, but the central bank won’t have any authority over it.
In a sign of the greater importance assigned to financial stability, the Federal Reserve Board will get a second vice chair position, this one responsible for supervision, to be chosen by the White House. One likely contender is Daniel K. Tarullo, a Georgetown University law professor who was President Barack Obama’s first appointee to the Fed board and is the point person on bank regulation. He already has been pulling control of bank supervision to Washington from the New York and other regional Fed banks, which oversees the big Wall Street firms.
Congress also gave the Fed responsibility for setting the fees merchants must pay banks when customers use their debit cards, another political hot potato. The Fed will have nine months to collect data and decide on a ceiling for such fees that must be “reasonable and proportional to the cost of processing those transactions.” During this time, there’s certain to be a lobbying war pitting retailers and banks. The Fed faces criticism from consumer groups if it sets the fee threshold too high or anger from banks if the level is set too.
April 23, 2010
by Daniel Wagner
Senior staffers at the Securities and Exchange Commission spent hours surfing pornographic websites on government-issued computers while they were being paid to police the financial system, an agency watchdog says.
The SEC’s inspector general conducted 33 probes of employees looking at explicit images in the past five years, according to a memo obtained by The Associated Press.
The memo says 31 of those probes occurred in the 2 1/2 years since the financial system teetered and nearly crashed.
The staffers’ behavior violated government-wide ethics rules, it says.
It was written by SEC Inspector General David Kotz in response to a request from Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa.
The memo was first reported Thursday evening by ABC News. It summarizes past inspector general probes and reports some shocking findings:
- A senior attorney at the SEC’s Washington headquarters spent up to eight hours a day looking at and downloading pornography. When he ran out of hard drive space, he burned the files to CDs or DVDs, which he kept in boxes around his office. He agreed to resign, an earlier watchdog report said.
- An accountant was blocked more than 16,000 times in a month from visiting websites classified as “Sex” or “Pornography.” Yet he still managed to amass a collection of “very graphic” material on his hard drive by using Google images to bypass the SEC’s internal filter, according to an earlier report from the inspector general. The accountant refused to testify in his defense, and received a 14-day suspension.
- Seventeen of the employees were “at a senior level,” earning salaries of up to $222,418.
- The number of cases jumped from two in 2007 to 16 in 2008. The cracks in the financial system emerged in mid-2007 and spread into full-blown panic by the fall of 2008.
California Rep. Darrell Issa, the top Republican on the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, said it was “disturbing that high-ranking officials within the SEC were spending more time looking at porn than taking action to help stave off the events that put our nation’s economy on the brink of collapse.”
He said in a statement that SEC officials “were preoccupied with other distractions” when they should have been overseeing the growing problems in the financial system.
April 19, 2010
New York Times
By Louise Story and Gretchen Morgenson
Goldman Sachs, the Wall Street powerhouse, was accused of securities fraud in a civil lawsuit filed Friday by the Securities and Exchange Commission, which claims the bank created and sold a mortgage investment that was secretly intended to fail.
The move was the first time that regulators had taken action against a Wall Street deal that helped investors capitalize on the collapse of the housing market.
The suit also named Fabrice Tourre, a vice president at Goldman who helped create and sell the investment.
In a statement, Goldman called the commission’s accusations “completely unfounded in law and fact” and said it would “vigorously contest them and defend the firm and its reputation.”
The focus of the S.E.C. case, an investment vehicle called Abacus 2007-AC1, was one of 25 such vehicles that Goldman created so the bank and some of its clients could bet against the housing market. Those deals, which were the subject of an article in The New York Times in December, initially protected Goldman from losses when the mortgage market disintegrated and later yielded profits for the bank.
As the Abacus portfolios in the S.E.C. case plunged in value, a prominent hedge fund manager made money from his bets against certain mortgage bonds, while investors lost more than $1 billion.
According to the complaint, Goldman created Abacus 2007-AC1 in February 2007 at the request of John A. Paulson, a prominent hedge fund manager who earned an estimated $3.7 billion in 2007 by correctly wagering that the housing bubble would burst. Mr. Paulson is not named in the suit.
Goldman told investors that the bonds would be chosen by an independent manager. In the case of Abacus 2007-AC1, however, Goldman let Mr. Paulson select mortgage bonds that he believed were most likely to lose value, according to the complaint.
Goldman then sold the package to investors like foreign banks, pension funds and insurance companies, which would profit only if the bonds gained value. The European banks IKB and ABN Amro and other investors lost more than $1 billion in the deal, the commission said.
“Goldman wrongly permitted a client that was betting against the mortgage market to heavily influence which mortgage securities to include in an investment portfolio,” Robert Khuzami, the director of the commission’s enforcement division, said in a written statement.
The lawsuit could be a sign of a revitalized Securities and Exchange Commission, which has been criticized for early missteps in assessing the causes of the financial crisis. The agency appears to be tracing the mortgage pipeline all the way from the companies like Countrywide Financial that originated home loans to the raucous trading floors that dominate Wall Street’s profit machine.
At a conference in New Orleans on Friday, Mr. Khuzami indicated that he was scrutinizing other deals involving mortgage securities. “We’re looking at a wide range of products,” he said at a news conference. “If we see securities with similar profiles, we’ll look at them closely.”
Shares of Goldman Sachs plunged more than 10 percent in just the first half-hour of trading after the suit was announced Friday morning. They closed down 13 percent, at $160.70, wiping away more than $10 billion of the company’s market value.
April 16, 2010
by Ted Neale
Companies providing life and health insurance owned $1.9 billion worth of stock in the fast-food industry as of June 11, 2009, researchers reported online in the American Journal of Public Health.
The investments were in the five largest fast-food corporations — Jack in the Box, McDonald’s, Burger King, Yum! Brands (KFC, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, and others), and Wendy’s/Arby’s, according to J. Wesley Boyd, of Harvard Medical School and Cambridge Health Alliance in Massachusetts, and colleagues.
“The insurance industry, ostensibly, appears to be concerned about people’s health and well-being,” Boyd said in an interview.
But, he said, “if the insurance industry is willing to invest in products known to be harmful and/or kill people then, prima facie, this is not an industry that actually cares about health and well-being.”
Although Boyd acknowledged that fast food can be consumed responsibly, he said the aggregate evidence points toward a negative effect on public health.
“We argue that insurers ought to be held to a higher standard of corporate responsibility,” he and his co-authors wrote in their paper.
All of the study authors are members — and two are co-founders — of Physicians for a National Health Program, a nonprofit organization advocating for universal, single-payer national health insurance.
“PNHP opposes for-profit control, and especially corporate control, of the health system and favors democratic control, public administration, and single-payer financing,” according to the organization’s mission statement.
Boyd said that the passage of healthcare reform makes the issue of owning stock in fast-food companies especially important.
“The health insurance industry is going to have a much bigger stake in providing healthcare, and what we’re doing in our paper is reminding people that [the industry's] primary interests are in earning money and generating profit, not in insuring people’s health,” he said.
In an e-mail, Pauline Rosenau, PhD, a professor of management, policy, and community health at the University of Texas School of Public Health, said the investment strategy of these insurance companies is not ethical.
“They are placing themselves in a situation of substantial conflict of interest — especially starting in 2014,” she wrote.
“Starting in 2014, insurers will have an even greater incentive to encourage their customers to pursue healthy food choices,” she continued. “However, this is only with respect to their own customers, not those insured by other companies. As long as insurers are largely private, for-profit entities, they are unlikely to identify with a public health orientation.”
To determine the extent to which insurance companies invested in the fast-food industry, Boyd and his colleagues analyzed shareholder data from the Icarus database, which contains information from Securities and Exchange Commission filings and reports from news agencies.
Their data were “vetted during the peer-review process by outside referees,” according to a spokesperson for the American Public Health Association, which publishes the American Journal of Public Health.
The $1.9 billion worth of stock in the five leading fast food companies represented 2.2% of the total market capitalization of those companies on June 11, 2009.
Most of the investments ($1.2 billion) were in McDonald’s, followed by Yum! Brands ($404.2 million), Burger King ($165.5 million), Jack in the Box ($120 million), and Wendy’s/Arby’s ($15 million).
The insurer investing the most in fast food — $422.2 million — was Northwestern Mutual, which offers life, disability, and long-term care insurance.
Next highest at $406.1 million was ING, a Dutch investment company selling life and disability insurance.
Massachusetts Mutual, which offers life, disability, and long-term care insurance, and Prudential Financial, which sells life insurance and long-term disability coverage, ranked third and fourth at $366.5 million and $355.5 million, respectively.
At first glance, it would appear that there is an inconsistency with insurance companies that have an interest in protecting health investing in the fast-food industry, although Boyd said that it makes sense financially.
“They’re hedging their bets,” he said. “First of all, they’re making money by directly investing in fast food, and, secondly, they’re making money by often charging higher premiums to people who’ve eaten a little too much fast food and are obese, have diabetes, cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, etc.”
He said that he would like to see insurance companies sell their stakes in the fast-food companies.
“But if they don’t divest, at a minimum they could use their position as owners of fast food to insist on higher quality products, lower calories, [and] better information about how many calories are in different foods,” he said.
David Orentlicher, MD, JD, of the William S. and Christine S. Hall Center for Law and Health at Indiana University, agreed in an e-mail that insurers should be held to a higher standard of corporate responsibility.
“That said,” he wrote, “it is very difficult in a capitalist society to expect people or companies to act against their self-interest. If we want people to act responsibly, we have to create financial incentives for them to do so.”
Theodore Marmor, PhD, a professor emeritus of public policy and management at Yale School of Management, did not agree that health and life insurers should be held to a different standard than other companies.
“I think this is a foolish approach to improving the health of the public,” Marmor wrote in an e-mail.
“It would be hard to find any corporation that did not have some effect on the public’s health. Why are insurers to be held to a higher standard? We have more important worries about health insurers than improving their stock portfolios — e.g., their behavior as insurers.”
ING did not respond to a request for comment.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Northwestern Mutual disputed the study’s figures, saying that the company’s stock holdings in the fast-food industry at the end of 2008 totaled less than $257 million. The current total is slightly less at $248 million, or 0.17% of a $146.1 billion portfolio, she said.
A spokesperson for Massachusetts Mutual said the reported investments were “absolutely incorrect.” He said that as of Dec. 31, the company owned about $1.4 million worth of stock in fast-food-related companies, which was “less than one-hundredth of one percent of cash and total invested assets of $86.6 billion.”
A Prudential Financial spokesperson said, “We can’t discuss specific investments within Prudential portfolios or those managed for third parties. That said, we have a fiduciary duty to manage assets in a way that provides the opportunity for consistently strong investment performance to our individual and institutional clients, while managing risk and investing responsibly.”
A spokesperson for America’s Health Insurance Plans (AHIP), a trade group for health insurers, said he could not comment on the investments of individual companies.
“Our industry is strongly committed to health and wellness,” he said. “Health plans have pioneered programs to promote prevention and encourage people to live healthier lifestyles.”